How I overcame scientific creative block

This week was a big week for me. I had set aside time to think about and work on my new project. It’s going to be the last big project of my PhD, so I want it to be awesome! It will answer amazing research questions, it will be super interesting, and it won’t have any problems in the design. It will be legen-(wait for it)-dary!

Aiming too high

Right. This also puts a lot of pressure on me to come up with an amazing research design that is novel and impactful. I’d like to answer a big question, one of the cool questions that led me to pursue a PhD in cognitive neuroscience, because working on such a topic is truly inspiring.

But there’s also a reason why many of the big questions are still unresolved: they’re difficult to solve. We don’t yet know how (and if) the brain gives rise to consciousness because, well, it’s a pretty difficult thing to figure out. Similarly, there are some complex phenomena happening in visual cortex, so expecting to understand them with a single project (or a single PhD) is completely unrealistic.

Feeling daunted by the contribution I wanted to make and the realization that it wasn’t going to happen, I felt paralyzed. I could do this experiment or that experiment, but what did it matter? In the end, even with the results of my experiment, how much more would we know about the fascinating topic I wanted to research?

On Monday, I spent an hour staring at the design I had drafted some time ago. It was cool and interesting, but I also had some question marks. Would some aspects of the experiment work? Was there a better way to do this? If so, what would that better way be? I couldn’t think of anything.

I started looking up papers for ideas. But since I didn’t exactly know what I was looking for, I was reading paragraphs vaguely related to my question and was not really getting anything out of them. I was still stuck.

Remember why and identify the problem

After feeling blocked like this, I had to change something. I remembered a favorite paper of mine about the topic I’d like to address in my next study. I got up from my chair and pulled it out of a folder. I flipped through the pages, re-read the parts I had highlighted, and looked at the notes I had scribbled in the margins.

It was like a breath of fresh air. This is why I am doing this work; this is why I love this topic. These are the questions that excite me, and now I have the opportunity to tackle one of them. How cool is that?

Suddenly, my mind was sharper. I looked at the design for my new project again. I identified the specific research questions I’d like to tackle and the pros and cons of the current design. I wrote down the problems I had to solve in order for my experiment to work, and from that moment on things got easier.

Sometimes the most difficult (and important) part of our job is to identify the problem. “What is the actual problem here? What is stopping me from progressing? What do I need to do to move on?”

Do what needs to be done: Set a timer

Since now I had a list of things I wanted to do, I knew how to go about it. I set up a Pomodoro Timer (I’ve also written about it here and here) and started with the first item on the list. Having the problem (or question) clear in my mind, I could focus on looking for solutions instead of getting lost or side tracked.

Using a timer really helped when doing this type of work. It was hard work, so email, Slack, WhatsApp and even my weather app were way more inviting than reading through a bunch of papers and thinking hard, trying to find an elusive solution.

That’s why I made sure I set a 25-minute timer. When I saw the time ticking away (especially when it dropped below 20 minutes), I thought, “Oh man, I have almost no time left! Let me start doing this stuff!” It’s surprising how much we can do in 20 minutes if we really focus.

When the allotted time was up, I made sure to get up and walk around, do a couple of stretches, or go to the bathroom. If I had skipped this and just keep working, the timer would have become meaningless. I had to enforce that when the time was up, I’d stop working; otherwise, I would never have taken the timer seriously and would not have felt the pressure to start working in the first place.

Image by Marco Verch (CC BY 2.0)

Talk to other people (duh…)

After a day or two of this type of focused work, I identified some solutions and ideas that could improve my design. Yay! But it always helps to talk to someone else about the ideas and see if they think the solutions are as brilliant as they seem to me.

The next day, I met up with Eelke, my post-doc supervisor (shouts to the coolest daily supervisor, woohoo!). I thought it would be enough to meet up for a coffee/tea instead of a full meeting. I imagined the conversation would go something like this:

Me: “Hey Eelke, I thought about a couple of potential problems with our new design. I identified these possible solutions.”

Eelke: “Those are great! Awesome.”

Right. The two-minute exchange I had imagined turned into a half-hour meeting because (surprise!) Eelke had some more (dare I say better?) ideas. We discussed a few more things and really developed the project further.

After the meeting, I went back to Google Scholar and looked into a few more things. I messaged several colleagues who might have relevant info for me, and their responses also helped. After this, I felt like we really had a solid design that I was confident about. (Let’s not forget, though, that next week I have a meeting with Floris, my PI and main supervisor, so I’m sure he will have some good ideas too. Even more improvements coming my way!)

I often think that I need to find all the solutions myself, but I forget that other people can help immensely. There is great benefit to working in a team, and I’d be wise to remember that.

Write it down before you forget

Finally, I wrote down all the solutions and ideas. Since I had them all floating around in my mind, it would be easy to assume that they would be there the next day, week, or month. But in fact, we often forget stuff, and it would be really frustrating if I had to go and look up all the information again.

I didn’t want to lose any of the great ideas I had gathered, so I wrote them down in a text document. Also, I made sure to describe them extensively enough to remember what I’d meant even a while later. A long time ago, I’d had an insightful meeting with Floris, and apparently we’d discussed something about orientation, because I’d written down in my notes, “Try orientation!!!” When I looked back at this a few days later, I recalled that it had been a great idea, but what the heck had I meant with “try orientation”?! To prevent this from happening, I wrote down my ideas and described them well.

What felt like a massive creative block at the beginning of the week now seems to have been resolved. The main steps that allowed me to do this were:

  1. Remember why (Why am I doing this? Why is this interesting?)
  2. Identify the problem (What do I actually need to do here? What is stopping me from progressing?)
  3. Talk to people (Discuss my ideas with others and see what they think.)
  4. Write it down (Write down the solutions and describe them well.)

How do you overcome creative blocks? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Featured image: Photo by bruce mars from Pexels